Big Little Lies is based on a 2014 novel by Liane Moriarty centered on a group of mothers of first graders and an event that occurs on the night of a school fundraiser. For the David E. Kelly written and produced, Jean-Marc Vallée-directed television limited series the story is moved from Australia to Monterey, California. There’s no mistaking the Dallas Buyers’ Club and Wild director’s style, particularly at the start of the first episode, which opens with flashes of scenes from the night of the fundraiser, when a murder occurs. It’s fitting that Big Little Lies premieres on the heels of my breakup with The Affair since the series falls in a similar veinー gorgeous setting, rich, entitled characters, and a mystery lurkingー with character relationships perhaps being the more interesting draw. Fortunately, unlike The Affair, there’s a lightheartedness underneath the seriousness of Big Little Lies.
Reese Witherspoon couldn’t have picked a better character than Madeline Martha Mackenzie, playing perhaps to-type but in the best way possible. No one does basic bitch quite like her whether as Tracy Flick, Elle Woods or even Cheryl Strayed. But she always gives her characters more depth than you might expect. And Madeleine’s one-liners (or two) would put Barney Stinson’s to shame (see below for a likely weekly feature “Madeleine’s Musings”).
It will be quite interesting to see how The Emmys play out later this year with so many talented actresses in this one show in addition to other top-notch actresses in the increasingly competitive limited series category (although its first episode airs tonight, there’s no doubt Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange will be aces in Feud: Bette & Joan). In addition to Witherspoon, Laura Dern plays Renata to a teeㅡ a worthy foe for Madeleine, as is Zoe Kravitz as the rather harmless second wife of Madeleine’s ex.
As Celeste, Nicole Kidman is given an interesting character in an abusive relationship but something bothers me about her acting. Is her quiet voice an attempt to cover her accent or her playing an Australian who has lived in the U.S. for some time? Often she isn’t even given much dialogue and is just there for a receiving end of Madeleine’s bitching or her husband’s hand, although that’s certain to change as the story progresses. There’s also Shailene Woodley who plays a more mature character than some of her past roles as the single mother who has just moved to Monterey to improve life for her and her son (and likely to hide from something or someone).
There are men there too (particularly Adam Scott and Alexander Skarsgård as the husbands of Madeline and Celeste, respectively) but the ladies own the show at this point, so let’s not waste space…
Music is almost another character in Big Little Lies from the haunting opening theme to the tunes that blast from Madeleine’s youngest daughter’s iPod. The music, which includes Janis Joplin and Sufjan Stephens, adds a moodiness and edge to the idyllic setting.
One of the least successful mechanisms the show uses (at least in the first two episodes) is constant flash-forwards to witness interrogations from other parents and teachers. None of the central characters are shown and names aren’t used, keeping the mystery a mystery. This device adds little to the plot— it’s obvious already that the central characters are involved in someone’s death in some way— and take away from time that could be better used by the talented main cast (not to take away from the talents of the “witnesses” but just…unnecessary).
Regardless of whether we continue to hear these superfluous chirps from the peanut gallery, I’m into this show for the duration of this seven-episode series. Nearly every character from those mentioned above to the barista to the mysterious man lurking in the background of a couple of scenes is treated as a potential suspect. While I can’t remember how the story plays out in the novel, I do know I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I did these first two episodes, and seeing these characters brought to life by such talented actresses solidifies Big Little Lies’ slot in my Sunday schedule.
Musings from Madeline for episodes 1 and 2:
- “Am I missing the math?”
- “When it comes to my daughter’s social recreational life, particularly as it concerns medications that will permanently affect her reproductive organs, would you just kick that little can of worms over to me?”
- “There’s my Chloe. Of course she’s networking.”
- “I need to swap out my family for some vodka.”
- “I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.”
- “I’ll have a cappuccino. And a shot.”